Friday, March 25, 2011

Movie Review (Sorta) - To Kill A Mockingbird

Last week, I took my kids to the movies. This was a big deal because for one thing, the theater didn't actually open until the next day, so it was kind of a celebration pre-opening thing. For another thing, we went to see a digitally restored copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, which is an absolutely amazing movie. I realize that it's not exactly a nerd movie, or one likely to appeal to gamers in general. I also realize that my event reviews are not usually about stuff I did that was as intellectually challenging as To Kill A Mockingbird. But I kind of don't care, because I really enjoyed the movie, and I want to talk about it. Forunately, I've got this sweet website where I can put stuff I write. Lucky me!

If you haven't seen To Kill A Mockingbird or read the book, count on me spoiling it for you. When we get to a point where a movie has been out since 1962, and is a huge part of American lore, I think the statute of limitations has expired on spoiler warnings. In fact, since I want you to be able to follow along, I'm even going to sum it up real quick. Mostly because, prior to last week, I couldn't remember any names past Boo Radley and Scout.

So here's the skinny. It's the 1930s in a small Southern town, and this lawyer named Atticus has two kids named Scout and Jem (it was the South in the 30s. Apparently names were just silly). Then there's the creepy guy who lives up the street (Boo Radley), and the rumor is that he stabbed his old man with scissors. This lawyer dude gets a case representing a black guy named Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping and beating a white woman. Tom didn't do it, and he couldn't have done it, because his left arm doesn't work since he stuck in a cotton mill or some damned thing. But an all-white jury still finds Tom guilty, despite the fact that Atticus does an incredible job of defending him. Bob Ewell, the father of the girl who was beat up (she never was raped at all, that part was a lie), is very angry at Atticus because he made the country dick-ass look like a lying hillbilly, and let everyone in town know that his daughter had tried to give Tom a handy. So Bob tries to kill Scout and Jem, but Boo Radley pops out and caps his ass with a kitchen knife, and they all live happily ever after. Except Tom - he got killed. Oh, and Bob - he also got killed.

The first thing that struck me after I left the movie was that Harper Lee (the book's author) was trying to make a point. At first glance, that point might be, 'be nice to black people.' When you wrap in Boo Radley, you might also add, 'be nice to that weird kid who lives up the street and stabbed his dad with a pair of scissors.' But that doesn't really make sense when you're considering the title. A person who names a book something so obscure is obviously making a point, and it's not 'racism is bad.' Sure, that's about the only thing anyone remembers about To Kill A Mockingbird, because most of us were forced to read it in ninth grade and all we remember was that the black guy didn't do it. But while that is a huge theme of the story, it's not the message we're supposed to get.

Three parts of the film frame the movie. The first is kind of innocuous, because it's just a conversation about shooting birds that occurs over the dinner table. Atticus is explaining to Jem that it's cool to shoot some birds, but it's a sin to shoot a mockingbird. Mockingbirds don't do anything but help. They don't roost in the garage, or eat your cat food, or crap on your car. They just sing and make our lives better, and so it's bad to kill them.

The second part is pretty obvious. The trial of Tom Robinson reveals that he had been helping the white girl he supposedly raped. She would ask him to fetch firewood or bust up chifferobes (I had to look that up, so don't feel bad). But then she got a little jungle fever and tried to jump his bones, only he wasn't up for that, and he ran off. Then her old man, Bob Ewell, came in the house and beat the crap out of her. All Tom did was help. He never hurt anyone. And for all the trouble, he was found guilty of rape and got himself killed.

The final part is kind of the undercurrent in the film. Boo Radley is the creepy dude that nobody has seen in a long time. Scout and Jem certainly haven't seen him, and they're scared of him. They kind of harass him and his family, because he's the weirdo in the run-down house. But Boo is always putting out little toys and trinkets for Jem and Scout to find, and at the end of the movie, he saves their lives by stabbing the crap out of Bob Ewell. The sheriff rules it an accident, and says Bob fell on his knife, because he says that to drag poor Boo out into court and try the whole thing would be rotten. Scout agrees, and says it would be like killing a mockingbird.

So, you see, it's not a book about racism. It's a book about treating people right. Harper Lee tells us that if a person hasn't ever done anything wrong, and all they are is nice, it's really crappy to cause them harm. That should be a pretty obvious lesson, but for a lot of us, it's not as obvious as you might think. We often assume things about people and treat them poorly, never knowing whether they are actually decent because we've already decided that their haircut means they suck. Take that weird old lady in purchasing who never stops talking, and who always walks funny, and who should have retired five years ago. It might just be that she's alone at home, and she might be really nice, and make you lemonade or darn your socks or something, if you ever listened to her and didn't keep making excuses about why you had to run away and couldn't stick around any more. That's not the only example - the nerdy kid at the back of the class, the quiet foreign exchange student who never says anything, the football star that we all hated just because he was the football star. Maybe they're not as bad as we think (but they probably are).

But that's not the only point Harper Lee was making. If you get this far, you're already doing pretty well. You see the racism angle, and think that's the point, but then you get deeper, and you get to the part where you should not be a dick, and think that's the point, but that's not really the whole push of the book. See, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley were congruent characters, but there was another set of congruent characters, and they should not be ignored. In fact, I think that if you miss this last part, you only have half the picture.

The last two congruent characters were Bob Ewell and... the dog. If you read the book or saw the movie recently, or if you just have a good memory, you'll remember a scene where Atticus has to shoot a rabid dog in the street. The dog is pure bad. It's not capable of anything good, and can only cause harm. Furthermore, that dog would totally kill a mockingbird, if he could catch it. So it has to be put down, because that's what you do with things that are all bad.

Bob Ewell is all bad. He beats his daughter, doesn't provide for his family, and his perjury causes the death of an innocent man. And so, the best thing that can be done with Bob is to stab his ass to death. That's what you do with things that are all bad.

The real point that Harper Lee is making is two-fold. On the one hand, do not harm people that are just plain good. And if someone is doing harm to people that are good, smoke 'em like a pack of Kools.

Now, just because you get the point a book is making does not mean it's ancient wisdom. Sure, some of Harper Lee's morality play makes sense. But you can understand what the book is saying without believing that you have to take it all to heart. You don't actually have to kill people who are all bad. And seriously, who decides? Do you decide who is the mockingbird and who is the rabid dog? Because that's more responsibility than I want. Also, I don't want to go to prison, so it might be best to not kill people.

Oh, and the movie was good.

So there's my 'review' of To Kill A Mockingbird. I apologize for using my ordinarily half-witted column to get all academic. I just wanted to talk about a movie I really enjoyed, and my kids were all, 'yeah, we got it Dad, now shut up.' So lucky you.


Unknown said...

This is an amazing post. Please do this more often.

Matt Drake said...

I would like to accommodate, but unfortunately, thoughts this deep are few and far between. Instead, if you were to see the monologue inside my head, it would usually sound like this:

'Hurr. Boobs. Ass. Hot legs. Sex. Heh. Oh cool, games with monsters. And boobs. Huuuh.'

It took me a week and a half to sound this smart. No way can I do that three times a week. Or realistically, three times a year.

But if aliens deem me worthy for another dose of semi-literate inspiration, I will do my best to write it down before I am distracted by porn.

Wind Lane said...

I've always thought the story was also about standing by your convictions and morals.

Atticus Finch is such a powerfully good man. Despite the heavy pressure of the public mindset and the mass bigotry, Atticus stays a constant and pure person. He remains uncorrupted despite what surrounds him.

Tom is much the same way. "Keep your head down and don't mix with the white folk" was the mentality from the black community in those types of places in those days because it helped you not get lynched. Tom is just a good person though, so when someone asks or needs help he's happy to oblige. His death in the story is one of the most tragic scenes there is.

Great stuff all around, great article, great book, great movie, great acting by the great Gregory Peck, etc...

If you got the three most amazing games ever all at the same time, and all before their releases and you had another post like this one stewing in your head - feel free to put the reviews on hold.

UniversalHead said...

Great post Matt. It's been a while, but I always saw the rabid dog scene as there to tell us more about Atticus' strength of character. Up until then he is shown as bookish, somewhat non-confrontational, even to his kids; but then he shoots the dog and we're told he's the best shot in the area. In other words, his great strength is that he has 'power' but he also has the self-control and lack of ego that means he chooses not to exercise it unless it is absolutely necessary. Scout looks at him differently, understands a bit more about him after that scene. And so do we, because we know he would do almost anything to avoid a violent solution - not because he can't, but because he chooses not to.

Matt Drake said...

I think that's the brilliance of To Kill A Mockingbird. The story is cohesive on its own. While stories like Lord of the Flies rely so heavily on odd scenes to hint at the author's overall message, To Kill A Mockingbird uses every scene for more than one purpose. On the surface, the dog scene does help to characterize Atticus, and contributes to his portrayal as a powerful man who uses his strength as a last resort.

But no scene in the movie is wasted (it's been a long time since I read the book, so I couldn't attest to the same being true of the novel). Every scene contributes to the story and characters, and at the same time, serves to further deliver the more subtle underlying message. Harper Lee could have chosen nearly any challenging confrontation to make Atticus more powerful, but she used a rabid dog. An escaped prisoner or a wild animal could have allowed Atticus to prove his strength, but a rabid dog is a powerfully one-dimensional device. A rabid dog is all bad, incurable and irrationally violent. It can cause only harm, and no good can come of its continued existence. Unlike a wild animal, which Atticus would regret killing, or an escaped prisoner, whom Atticus would try hard to avoid killing, a rabid dog must be destroyed, with no apologies or hesitation and no regrets or guilt.

An escaped prisoner or wild animal may have been a difficult obstacle, but it would not have been as perfect a congruent character for Bob Ewell. Like the rabid dog, his death leaves no guilt or regret. He brought only strife and misery to the world, and made the world a better place for leaving it.

I grant you that you can take away a lot from the story without having to read into it Harper Lee's deeper message. But when she named her book, she was throwing out a big neon clue. The title could have been a lot of things, but her choice of titles tells us that she was pointing to specific elements within the book and asking the reader to see deeper than a story of racism and strength during the Depression.

UniversalHead said...

Indeed, every scene has mulitple meanings, and after a brief bit of internet reading, it seems the dog is a metaphor for racism as well - which makes a lot of sense.

The only thing I have a problem with in your interpretation is walking away from it as a justification of capital punishment. I have a problem with that interpretation, and I think Harper Lee would have too (though I could be completely wrong).

Unlike a rabid dog, human beings are redeemable (and I don't mean from a religious point of view; I'm not religious) - even Bob Ewell. And more to the point, we don't have the right to take another human being's life for any reason, especially with the inevitable flaws in our judicial systems.

That's just my opinion and interpretation, of course. It's been a while since I read the book.

Jur said...

I think your enthusiasm is a testament to what a great movie this is. I should watch it sometime.